After taking a hiatus last year from hosting a BioBlitz, the Vashon Nature Center will lead the 24-hour wildlife survey across a swath of Ellisport beginning this Friday, as students, biologists and the curious comb the area from the Tramp Harbor beach to the uplands, cataloging the variety of life there.
“I think the BioBlitz is really a deep exploratory experience where we just are given license to explore our home as kids usually do, to let our curiosity run wild and to see what we can find that’s sharing the island and living with us,” said Bianca Perla, director of the Vashon Nature Center. “There’s so much we miss day-to-day and all these myriad of things that we do. I think looking deeply and paying attention to the island, it’s hard to explain how fulfilling that is, but it’s a very fulfilling experience.”
The term “BioBlitz” has been around since 1996 when the first survey of its kind was held at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington D.C. The Vashon BioBlitz enters its sixth year this week and over the course of a full day will track a number of different organisms unique to Puget Sound, including plants, amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, mammals, butterflies and insects, owls, fungal ecology and other wildlife.
According to Kathryn True, outreach and program manager for the nature center, the event was postponed last year to organize the data collected in 2016. True said that the nature center is excited to welcome the additional involvement of the schools for the upcoming BioBlitz, as they are both literally and figuratively in the path of the anticipated survey. The Chautauqua pond, garden and surrounding forest are vital to the BioBlitz this year, and volunteers will be busy at work collecting samples to identify as many of their findings from the area as possible.
“I think the interesting thing for me was that I was in on the original planning, and it was pretty tiny. It was Bianca and I sitting in a coffee shop coming up with ideas and trying to involve people on the island. The vision that she had then, it is becoming more and more real each year,” said True.
Perla said that Tramp Harbor and the surrounding area were chosen for the BioBlitz because the nature center would like a representative breadth of data from across Vashon-Maury and that a survey has not been done on the east side of the island yet. Ellisport also features a salt marsh habitat, which the center does not currently have much inventory from.
“This event is different because we’re taking on a whole new scale by inviting the schools to participate. That’s a whole new level of coordination that we haven’t taken on before,” said Perla, who added that effort was being taken to ensure the schools would be involved in engaging, age appropriate ways. “Our master plan is probably going to turn out to be like, minimally controlled chaos,” she said. “It’s coming together beautifully.”
Before the BioBlitz opens to the public, nature center team members and expert collaborators will be on hand at this year’s basecamp, the Chautauqua Elementary School playground, opening the first survey stations to students who will begin to conduct their own scientific inquiries. The nature center has coordinated this year with teachers in the elementary, middle and high schools for an independent study of nearby locales as well as for a preview of the coming BioBlitz, with support from grade-level Green Teams — facilitated by the Green Schools Program — who will act as station tour guides. Meanwhile, at Vashon High School, students from an AP environmental class have been trained to use an open source program called iNaturalist, where findings and data from the event will be recorded.
“We’ll be training the students on how to best photograph specimens so they can be positively ID’d,” said Maria Metler, education specialist with the nature center, who gave the training. According to Metler, the iNaturalist application can be used on most devices, such as a cell phone or tablet, and photos can be uploaded to the platform online.
Once a post of a certain finding is created, Metler explained, the user will be prompted to complete information about it.
“The geo-location attached to the photo uploads with that observation, and whether or not other students can identify that specimen, other users can do that for them,” she said. “Once there’s enough common agreeance on that species about that observation, it becomes a research-grade observation record.”
The iNaturalist program allows discoveries to be shared worldwide, and scientists across the globe can access the material participants in the Vashon BioBlitz share to it.
“I’m really excited to engage students in the BioBlitz themselves. I think the tools of observation are a really important factor in today’s world,” said Metler. “We all walk around with these computers in our hands and in our pockets, and to help students use them beyond social media — well, in some ways iNaturalist is a social media platform — to use these devices for education, I think, is the next step for this technology that we all see as a phone, but is so much more.”
According to True, the utilization of iNaturalist could also have the potential of impacting policy-making and conservation.
“It is an ongoing public record of sightings of these plants and animals. Going forward, we can build on that and grow the record,” she said. “As humans, it could help us be smarter about our activities on the island. That is a strong possibility of citizen science on the island, and that is helped with expert leadership.”
Perla said that the schools have asked to involve students in a future BioBlitz for some time and that the nature center realized they had found the opportunity to do it, as the schools are close to areas that will be prioritized by the survey.
“We’ve got a lot of different ways the students are plugging in, and I’m just really excited about it because I know the schools are interested in giving scientific experiences to every kid, and I know this comes close to that, giving that experience to as many as they can,” she said.
Science coordinator and Chautauqua elementary teacher Amy Bogaard was looking forward to the opening day.
“I think this BioBlitz will encourage involvement in future BioBlitzes. In general, the schools have not been involved. To have it at the school and encourage the students [to participate] will be a huge stepping stone,” she said. “It’s going to be really helpful to have the community be involved — and not just community members, but scientists in their field. That to me is invaluable.”
For more about the BioBlitz and how to take part, including as a volunteer, see vashonnaturecenter.org/BioBlitz.